Much ado about nuffin'

Even Scousers are now beginning to speak Estuary English. Louisa Young has some advice for parents whose children don't talk proper

[The Guardian, London, Wednesday June 2, 1999]

Parents across the nation will now be suffering in the same way that middle class parents have suffered since the 60s: their children don't talk like them. The Scouse accent, we are told, is getting contaminated; Middlesbrough, Leeds, even Glasgow, are also suffering. New research suggests that Estuary English, that semi-convincing Cockney/sloppy hybrid, is taking over the nation. Even the accents which you might have thought could hold their own if only because no one outside the area could understand them, with the resulting diminution of accent-affecting conversation with outsiders are giving way to the glottal stop, the F or V for TH, the voice of EastEnders, Jonathan Ross and Birds of a Feather.

Accents shift and change; of course they do, they always have. Personally, I think the loss of the Liverpool voice would be a bloody shame. But we're not talking loss, we're talk ing change, and one of the funniest thing about change is people's reactions to it parents, for example, when their child comes home with a voice different to the one they've had so far. (One of the absurd and only semi-admitted reasons that parents who cling to public school education do so is because they want their infants to talk proper: the pure and ungeographical Queen's English.)

It's interesting, too, when children go to school with an accent different to what the teachers expect. An early memory: me, aged five, central London posh kid at a state school. Teacher: "Don't say what, say pardon." Mum and Dad: "Don't say pardon, say what." A later memory: at a pretty grand girls public school, the teachers were visibly struggling to know what to do with the vocal chords of a pure and unadulterated Cockney.

They correct her spelling, should they "correct" her accent? She held out firm while the rest of us, and our languid vowels, slipped and slid around the great range of voices and identities that adolescents adopt.

And that is a lot of what accent change is about: youngsters trying things on before reverting, often enough, to parental type. Needless to say, like most urban children with any degree of social mobility, I soon acquired an accent for every occasion, which ranged in their influences from PG Wodehouse's braying aunts, via the different languages spoken by the 54 different nationalities at my primary school, to whoever I happen to be talking to at the time.

I still can't drink in the company of an Irish person without falling into some ludicrous simulacrum of a Cork accent, soaked up at my nanny's knee: it was my first accent, and is still not far beneath the surface.

I remember, as a student, university friends from outside London thinking I was affected, pretentious, an inverted snob, utterly out of touch with my own background and identity when in the course of three phone calls (to parents; the manager of a bar I was working in; and my Ladbroke Grove-born West Indian boyfriend) my voice transformed itself completely. "Mockney!" they would sneer, in their dulcet and untouched home counties public-school tones. No, I would protest, Londoner. Product of a complicated city.

Personally, I feel we should all speak and be spoken to in every accent or dialect which has shaped our lives: this does mean that I find myself in Texas using words like "Y'all", and then thinking they're going to lynch me for taking the piss, but of course they don't think I am taking the piss.

For them, "Y'all" is a perfectly normal thing to say just as it's normal to speak French in France, or say "absolutely fabulous" a lot if you're in a meeting at a glossy magazine. And as it's normal, as a young Scouser or Geordie, to incorporate pronunciations from further away than your parents used to.

But then, last year, half of the youth in London was talking like Oasis (or trying to); and the pickled cocktail of Asian, Jamaican, Cockney and Arabic that goes on up my road is staggering to hear. Once you've heard a Swede trying to buy red pesto from a Lebanese trying to sell him Bisto, you know that accents can only be a great big soup.

Anyone who personifies these changes in any abrupt way is of course going to be teased, maybe yelled at by their parents, maybe looked at sadly by their grandparents. A friend of mine, a London resident but Wigan born, bred and accented, is already looking sadly at his four-month-old baby and saying: "He's going to talk like a southern poof, isn't he?" But back in Wigan, people think the dad talks southern an idea which raises a big laugh down here.

But at least these are only accents: think of the grandparents in foreign countries whose grandchildren and great grandchildren come on holiday and cannot speak their language at all, where real communication is lost between the generations. I've seen old, old Ghanaian ladies rolling out their few words of English for kids who look just like them, but speak pure Estuary and nothing else.

Perhaps those children will one day go to Ghana and come back speaking perfect Oxbridge; perhaps the grandchild of Wigan will go to Liverpool and return Cockney. In Louisiana, people my age say: "Comment ša va, y'all?" What would their French grandparents think of that?

Any educated Arab or Chinese, who knows the classical language, also knows to speak his own dialect when he's with his own people. What we seem to be heading for now in Britain is everybody speaking everybody's dialect all at the same time. Tower of Babel, anyone?

Placed on the web 1999 06 03 JCW

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